This summer, I discovered a golden nugget! Right in the middle of France, 500 kilometers South of Paris.
You should know I have been vacationing in Bort-les-Orgues at least seven times since I was 13 years old. And even though the Avenue de la Gare is one of two main roads into the centre of town, I never noticed this particular villa at number 391 before.
During our third week in Bort-les-Orgues this summer, while we were on our way back to our tent, it suddenly dawned on me that I needed to take a closer look at this house. I urged my husband to stop the car, jumped right out and took a series of pictures from across the road. Then I walked a little closer to the house and tried the fence… it wasn’t locked so there I stood, in the garden of a family I didn’t know. It felt a bit weird. What would they say if they saw me there, taking pictures? I decided to leave quickly, but when I turned around I looked right into the eyes of a little French boy. Caught red-handed!
In my best school-French I explained why I was in his garden, taking pictures. And I believe the boy actually understood what I said. He replied that the house belonged to his grandparents. Unfortunately they weren’t home so I promised I would come back the next day. I really wanted to know more about this house; like I knew there was more…
The next day, prepared with a letter apologizing for my rude intrusion, an explanation of my reasons, my blog’s URL and my e-mail address, I entered the premises again. I had planned to leave the letter in case no-one would answer the door, but fortunately my concerns proved unnecessary. The door was ajar, and after I knocked and pushed it open, two lovely ladies appeared in the doorway; the boy’s mother and grand-mother. They were very kind and invited my family and me for a drink and a guided tour around the house later that evening.
So we rushed to the tent, threw some hamburgers on the BBQ and hurried back to the house as we couldn’t wait for our guided tour. We got a warm welcome from the owners of the house – the grand-father and grand-mother of the little boy – Mr. and Mrs. Francis and Camille Humbert.
It turned out that Francis Humbert knew everything about his house, and was rightly proud to tell us what he knew. So, while our two boys played in the salon with their three boys, we sat at the dining-room table, enjoyed local wine and cheese, and listened to his fascinating story.
This is the story of the house at 391 Avenue de la Gare, Bort-les-Orgues
In 1900 a retired pharmacist from Paris called A. Buisson built a beautiful house in Bort-les-Orgues and called it “Les Genêts”. Genêts is French for Broom, Sarothamnus Scoparius, a common shrub in the surrounding scenery. The Roman numerals MCM on the facade represent the year 1900. And being a Parisian, Buisson had ‘Paris Stone‘ transported all the way down to Bort-les-Orgues to create the distinctive facade with its huge white blocks.
Interesting to know is that the house was originally built as three completely separate apartments, each with a private entrance, a separate staircase, a small kitchen and an even smaller bathroom.
Now Mr. Buisson was an amateur painter and boy, did he love to paint! In every single room, on every wooden door panel, Buisson painted a little gem. And Francis Humbert generously gave us the Grand Tour, explaining each and every painting in detail, from the front door all the way to the attic.
When entering the house, you are immediately surrounded by Buisson’s paintings: all doors that open onto the hall are covered with pictures of playing children. The above panels appear to be depicting the four seasons.
And then there were these two lovely ladies on the cabinet in Francis Humberts office. I see a remarkable resemblance to Alphonse Mucha’s Byzantine Heads, the Brunette & the Blonde.
Byzantine Heads by A. Buisson
Byzantine Heads by Alphonse Mucha (1897)
Below painting shows that Buisson was also inspired by Johannes Vermeer (1632- 1675) and his contemporaries.
And here are two more interesting door panels that deserve our attention. They may not look familiar to you, but people who have been to Bort-les-Orgues will recognise at least one of these paintings immediately. The 15th century castle Chateau de Val was originally built on a 30 meter high rock, overlooking a valley. However, between 1952 and 1962 a dam was erected in the valley which left Chateau de Val barely above the water. Today, the castle is a popular tourist attraction.
The panel on the right got me rather excited because of its thistles. Thistles, you should know, are the symbol of Lorraine and of its capital Nancy, a city that many consider the cradle of Art Nouveau.
And how about this?! Buisson signed all his paintings with a signature that – at first sight – looks like a set of Japanese characters. Japonism influenced the Art Nouveau movement big time and this signature proves it influenced Buisson too! (The first character is a mix of an A & B. The second character U & I. The third character symbolises two S’s and the final character is a mix of an O & N.)
Besides paintings, a lot of other original Art Nouveau elements remain in the house. Wouldn’t you love to put that curvy mirror frame over your own fire-place?
Continuing his story, Francis explained that Monsieur Buisson sold the house in 1918 to Camille’s grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Paul and Julienne Lachaze. The Lachazes, who were millers, reconstructed the three apartments into one big family home and had electricity and water installed. They even turned the complete staircase around! Francis showed us a 1920 fuse he discovered while working at the house, and behind a small cabinet there was still some original – 100-year-old – wallpaper. In the kitchen, he showed us the original butlers bell panel. So besides 6 children, these millers had kitchen staff as well!
After Camille Humbert’s grand-mother passed away in 1977 the house was abandoned for ten years. Then, in 1987, Francis and Camille decided to buy the house to save it from further decay and preserve it for the future. And they’ve been restoring it, room after room, ever since…
By this time, our daughter was playing the piano together with Camille and Francis’ granddaughter and the boys were chasing each other around the salon. We had had a lovely evening at the Humberts and we kindly thanked them for their great story as well as their hospitality. We drove back to our tent, put the kids to bed, and sat down overlooking the lake with a nice glass of French wine. What a lovely evening…